Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Pepsi Max commercial has certainly garnered a lot of attention as people question its possibly racist undertones. It's relatively easy to assume that Pepsi did not intend racist undertones, but it's very difficult to pick apart whether or not the commercial is implicitly, subconsciously racist--at least through its portrayal of stereotypes.

The obvious examples are the "angry, black woman" stereotype--this is clearly portrayed by the controlling, dominant attitude of the woman in the commercial. She controls her husbands' dieting habits ruthlessly, until at least he is allowed to imbibe "Pepsi Max," whispering "maximum taste" to himself as the white woman jogs by and catches his eye, implying that the "white" woman is more attractive than the "black" woman. And it's debatable or not whether the image of the black couple running away at the end of the commercial is suggestive of "blacks" as "criminals and wrongdoers," or perhaps a subtler but highly unlikely reference to pre-emancipation American slaves running from their "loftier, nobler" white lords.

Either way, I think I disagree slightly with the notion that the commercial is racist if you want it to be, and I think there's a finer point to be made about perspective. Honestly, when watching the commercial, I saw nothing wrong with the commercial, and this made me start thinking about why others would see a problem with it. Who would see a problem with it? It seems the issue at hand is a matter of perception: as a middle-class, white, non-minority, youth, the commercial seems largely inoffensive. However, a black individual watching the commercial, who has experienced some form of racism in the past or in areas where race issues are prevalent would be more likely to immediately perceive the commercial as racist. Meanwhile, a middle-class white individual raised in a suburban environment where race issues weren't prevalent and where whites were the overwhelming majority would not be conscious of race issues, or have them on his or her mind, and would then completely miss the possible racist connotations.

While I attempted to tackle this issue, a thought experiment occured to me: imagine sixty years from now as you approach old age, if the immigration issues were solved and the Mexico-America borderline and the word "immigration" itself was no longer a hotbed issue, and the concept itself was deceased, as deceased as slavery is today in America. A commercial pops up on the TV, and it shows an unusually thirsty Hispanic individual stealing a box of Pepsis as he runs from the store and escapes from the store owner by scaling a wall and escaping to the other side. To the eyes of our generation, the commercial does not "appear,", but is blatantly and grossly offensive and disrespective, but to the eyes of the generation below us the commercial would seem humorous as an individual goes to incredible lengths just to satisfy raging thirst.

I think, likewise, that a black individual living in an area of the United States where race issues are tense would see the commercial as irrefutably racist, not possibly racist--there would be no question of "possibility."

I'm not sure the example is perfectly analogous, and I don't intend it to be, but it gives food for thought. The perspective from which you approach the commercial seems to determine the extent to which you interpret the signs to have a certain meaning--the signified varies depending on the ethnicity and life experiences of the viewer.

One last thought: while bouncing ideas off a friend and discussing the commercial, he mentioned to me a video interview Morgan Freeman on his stance on black history month:

This might be old news for some, but I hadn't seen it before. I think it's also interesting in that it shows raising awareness of existing social issues to some extent encourages them. Because, in truth, what we all desire in reality is for everyone to be able to watch the commercial without having feelings of resentment at possible racist tones--what's being questioned is the motive. As long as motive is in question, it seems unlikely that racism can disappear.

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